Overload Principle: Training with Purpose

Overload Principle: Training with Purpose

Authored by Nate Martins

How do you know you’ve hit a plateau?

Have you trained for countless hours with sparse results? Strict dieting with little to show for it? Strength training without the ability to increase weight? When was the last time you hit a PR, anyway?

Plateauing happens to athletes at all levels. It’s good for training regimens to become a way of life, but doing those sessions over and over again can become like mindlessly checking a box. Inputs remain the same–which can be detrimental to increasing performance outputs.

Typically used by weightlifters and those participating in team sport, the overload training principle (also called progressive overload principle) forces athletes out of their comfort zones to gradually increase training difficulty to see measured results.

Incorporating overload principle into training may be one of the steps you need to get off that plateau.

A runner sitting on a plateau overlooking a vista

Building Muscle–How it Actually Works

Overload principle states that in order for muscle to increase in size, strength and endurance, it must be regularly challenged to produce an output that is as near as possible to maximum capacity. The technique pushes the body past its limits, further breaking it down to force adaptations that lead to performance gains.

Skeletal muscle is composed of fibers that contract when our muscles are put to work. During high intensity, challenging exercise, muscle fibers are broken down. These small breakdowns are called “microtrauma,” and cause the muscle to rebuild stronger, overcompensating to protect itself from other breakdowns with new muscle-building protein.

The rebuilt fibers increase in thickness and number, resulting in muscle growth. To support this, we need enough dietary protein to ensure the rate of muscle protein synthesis is greater than the rate of muscle protein breakdown; this is how our muscles grow.

The same process happens in all of the muscles of our body. The heart muscle also gets bigger with training, enabling more oxygen to be used by other muscles. An exercise-induced release of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) stimulates the formation of blood vessels, leading to the capillarization of the muscle, allowing increased blood flow, oxygen, and nutrient delivery (which is a critical factor in muscle growth).1 More enzymes are also produced that are utilized in energy production.

A woman squatting in the weight room using overload training, which says that muscle fibers and broken down during exercise, then muscle growth is a result of the fibers increasing in thickness and number

Interestingly, when it comes to muscular hypertrophy (the building of muscle), the exact mechanisms aren’t totally understood; there are likely many factors at play. Current hypotheses include some combination of mechanical tension, metabolic fatigue and muscular damage.

But with training adaptations like overload principle, there can be results like slower utilization of muscle glycogen, greater reliance on fat oxidation, less lactate production during exercise, and adaptations to skeletal muscle.2 To produce muscle growth, athletes must apply a load of stress greater than what those muscles have previously adapted to.3

The idea of overload principle is rooted in how muscles grow–and it begins immediately after exercise, but can take weeks or months to actually manifest.

Practice Before Overloading

Before introducing heavier weight or adding more miles to an exercise program, it’s essential to have the correct technique for those exercises cemented. Muscle memory and the repetition of techniques with proper form are crucial for executing an exercise flawlessly.

Normally, these skills are best learned when fatigue doesn’t impact an athlete’s ability to perform the movements correctly.

But once introduced on top of a good skill base, overload principle can be a powerful tool to reducing the overall risk of injury (as it did with this study on junior elite soccer players).4

Implementing Overload Principle

Without overload principle, fitness level is less likely to increase; training programs might not yield strength gains because the body adapts to static repetition.

There are two basic components of overload principle: the overloading, and the progression. Overloading is what we’ve discussed above, the adding of stress, weight, etc. to achieve greater fitness.

Progression is the way in which the overloading should be added to training. This can be achieved through an increase in frequency, intensity, time of exercise, or a combination of these.

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